Saturday, December 31, 2005

About Reuven

This week's parsha (Miketz) got me thinking - admittedly, sometimes a dangerous thing - about Reuven.

Yosef is playing headgames with his brothers - there are many questions about this, but that's not my topic for the moment - and he eventually comes to Binyomin. He wants to see his only full-brother. The other brothers try to talk him out of it, but he's not having any of it. He wants Binyomin, and refuses to give them any food until they produce him.

The brothers go home, and try to approach Yaakov about it. They know it's going to be a hard sell, after all, look what happened the last time one of Rachel's children was left in their care. So Reuven - being the oldest, and all - decides that he'd better be the one to step up and take personal responsibility for Binyomin's safety. And how does he do this?

Gen 42:36-37
And Jacob their father said to them, "You have bereaved me of my children: Joseph is no more, and Simeon is no more, and now you would take Benjamin; all this has come upon me." Then Reuben said to his father, "Slay my two sons if I do not bring him back to you; put him in my hands, and I will bring him back to you."

Reuven tells his father, "Pop, I'll tell you what. If I don't bring Binyomin home, I'll let you kill your grandkids. Trust him with me."

Yaakov declines the offer - wisely, in my opinion.

So the question is: What was Reuven thinking?!

I mean, did he really expect to be taken seriously with that kind of offer? Was he perhaps smoking too much of the local herbs? What could possibly have been going through Reuven's mind to say something like that?

We were talking about this a bit at kiddush this morning, and I realized that this really seems to be part of Reuven's character, and probably the reason he was not worthy of the malchut. I think that while Reuven was generally well intentioned, he was just a bit impulsive. He just didn't think things through before acting on them.

In fact, this is at least the third time in Tanach that we see this sort of behavior from him. The first time is when Reuven moves Yaakov's bed into Leah's tent. He decided it was fair, and did it, not considering whether his father might have an opinion about the matter. The second time was with Yosef and the pit. It was Reuven who had him moved to the "empty pit that had no water", which Rashi tells us was instead filled with snakes and scorpions. In other words, Reuven didn't check out whether this was a safe thing to do. He just acted.

This, of course, is not to say that Reuven was not a great man - he clearly was. But it does seem to indicate a certain personality flaw.

Given that I have at least one son with this same sort of problem, I guess this gives me some hope that he can still grow up to be a great man some day.

Sunday, November 13, 2005

What can you give the God who has everything?

There's an interesting sequence in last week's parsha - Lech Lecha:

Gen. 14:18-20
But Malchizedek, king of Salem, brought out bread and wine; he was a priest of God, the Most High. He blessed him saying, "Blessed is Abram of God, the Most High, Maker of heaven and earth; and blessed be God, the Most High, Who has delivered your foes into your hand"; and he gave him a tenth of everything.
Now, it's not so hard to understand the concept of blessing Abram, in the name of God. But Malchizedek also blessed God, and that's a little more complicated. How do you give God a blessing? Can you really give God something he doesn't already have? This is a problem that apparently did bother the Sages, some of which came up with explanations of how he meant different things in each case.

But I think that perhaps it is possible to give God something he doesn't have. In fact, I think God designed us that way.

According to the Rambam (at least I think it was the Rambam), the two tablets are to be understood as being analogs of each other: the first pertaining to the relationship between Man and his Creator; the second pertaining to the relationship between Man and his fellow. Each Commandment deals with the same underlying issue, as applied to each of those categories.

I'm not going to get into that in detail here - perhaps another time. I am going to explain the relationship between the first and sixth, which are pertinent here. First, let's remember that the first Commandment is, "I am the Lord your God..." and the sixth is, "Don't murder."

Now how do these two things relate to each other? The first doesn't even really sound like a Commandment - I mean, what exactly are we being commanded to do? And the sizth is completely baffling... How does one murder God?!

Well, according to Rabbi David Fohrman (and I think he got this from the Rambam too, but I'm not positive about that), you have to consider what the act of murder is: Murder is the process of removing a person from the world. We are not allowed to do that. So what, then is the first Commandment? Well, we're not allowed to remove God from the world either. And how does one remove God from the world? By refusing to recognize Him and His dominion over the Universe.

Now this may seem a little strange to say... I mean, refusing to recognize someone doesn't change the reality? Either God IS or He IS NOT. But the issue isn't really about what IS or IS NOT... it's about what is perceived. One of the primary functions of humanity, and the Jewish People, in particular, is to bring God's Presence into the mundane. "I am the Lord, Your God" is a command to bring God into the world! Don't think that God is out there, God is in here too, and it's our job to make the world aware of that.

And God had that in mind when He created us. He gave us sentience and free-will exactly for this purpose. The one thing that God can't have without us is our appreciation of Him.

I think that's what Malchizedek was trying to demonstrate. We can't give God much... except ourselves, and our blessings.

The Garden State

One of my neighbors made a "Shalom Zachor" this week - I think this is their 7th child. Anyway, his Rav spoke, and one of the things he said made me think about the creation of Man, and the Garden of Eden.

According to Midrash, someone once asked a Tanna (I don't remember either of their names. I didn't actually look into the Midrash; I'm just using his explanation of it.): "If God saw fit to create men with an orlah (foreskin), why do we believe that we should remove it?"

The answer given was, "Do bread and wine grow on trees? Just as they are raw materials that need to be made into a final product, so too Man is born 'unfinished' and needs to be completed."
A worthy question, and answer, frankly.

But then he went on to describe Gan Eden. He said that originally, Adam was created with a Milah, in other words, without an orlah, and bread and wine grew on trees. This is God's conceptual image of the world, but we screwed it up. Given the curses God pronounced when casting us from Gan Eden, this makes some manner of sense.

Gen. 3:16 To the woman He said, "I will greatly increase your suffering and your childbearing; in pain shall you bear children. Yet your craving shall be for your husband, and he shall rule over you."

In other words, until this point, the intent had been that women would be truly equal, and would bear children without much discomfort. More on this later.

Gen. 3:17-19 To Adam He said, "Because you listened to the voice of your wife and ate of the tree about which I commanded you saying, 'You shall not eat of it,' accursed is the ground because of you; through suffering shall you eat of it all the days of your life. Thorns and thistles shall it sprout for you, and you shall eat the herb of the field. By the sweat of your brow shall you eat bread until you return to the ground, from which you were taken: For you are dust, and to dust shall you return."

In other words, until this point, our sustenance came easily to us. We did not have to struggle and work hard in order to provide food for ourselves and our families.

But I was thinking about this a bit, and came to the conclusion that I don't think this Midrash is meant literally. I don't think it's rational to believe that the trees literally produced wine and bread, etc. I think there's another way to consider it.

Perhaps the truth is that the changes that took place weren't to the World, but rather to Humanity itself. Maybe, just as we changed in respect to being born without an orlah, so too we were changed in other ways. The results are interesting, at least to me:

Animals do not prepare their food. Cows don't go cooking the grass in the pasture. Lions and tigers don't season their prey first. (Gators and crocs do, but what they do is pretty gross, and beyond my scope here.) Animals basically take the world as it comes, and the world provides complete foods for them without further preparation. Perhaps, then, Man was also physiologically different in that he was able to directly use the produce of the world, without further preparation. Thus when it says that bread grew on the trees, it doesn't literally mean that you had white, rye and pumpernickel trees there. Rather, it means that the plants available were, for them, as complete as we would view bread. In fact, there are also Midrashic sources that describe the trees of Gan Eden as being edible. Again, perhaps it wasn't the trees that changed, but rather us. We used to be able to eat trees, just as well as their fruit.

Similarly, the issue of childbirth. For example, even the largest kangaroos, which grow to slightly larger than man-sized, give birth to tiny joeys, which then climb their way into their mothers' pouches, and continue to grow until they are big enough to leave the pouch. So mother kangaroos don't really have birthpangs, like human women do. The darned things are too small to cause that much difficulty. No, I'm not suggesting that we started off as marsupials, but I am suggesting that it is conceivable (no pun intended) for us to have started off having tiny babies, that grew large outside the mother's body.

Now, if what I'm suggesting is right, then it comes out that the Garden of Eden is not so much a place as a physical state. The Garden State, as it were. And that Brit Milah is our attempt, to quote CSNY much out of context, " get ourselves back to the Garden..."

I'm not entirely sure any of this makes sense... just a thought.

So Am I a Kofer?

So what is this blog about? Well, it's about Jewish thought, but not just any Jewish thought... My Jewish thought, which frankly can be a bit different; certainly different than the "accepted" views of many. There a number of major areas in which these difference are manifest:
  1. I do not believe that previous generations were quasi-magical beings who never did anything wrong, or without in some way having pure intentions. I believe that while they were, great and learned people, they were also human, with human failings. Sometimes they made mistakes. Sometimes they did bad things. And contrary to making them less, I believe that makes them more. They were able to rise to their levels of greatness despite their failings.
  2. I think that Chazal were very real about the world in which they lived, believing that God put us in this world to reckon with, and appreciate, as it is. This doesn't mean the world is perfect. It doesn't mean there isn't even extreme ugliness in the world. But even the unpleasant aspects of life are part of God's world, just as the beautiful parts.
  3. I believe in Science, and that most of the time, it is possible to reconcile it with Torah. I do believe there are aspects of the Bri'ah that we don't understand... parts that are, perhaps, mystical. But in General, I believe that God created the universe, and the scientific rules that govern it. And if God believes in Science, that's good enough for me.
  4. I do not believe that Chazal were never mistaken about the universe. I believe that they lived within the context of their day, and that understood things within those frames of reference. So if the Gemara talks about spontaneous generation, which it does, that doesn't mean that it really happens. It doesn't even mean, as I've heard many explain, that things used to be that way, but then nature changed. I think that's a ridiculous assumption. It makes much more sense to assume that peoples' understanding of the World changed, and hence their descriptions and explanations of it would do likewise.
Those are some the kinds of things you'll find here. I hope that most of them will be at least marginally coherent, but I make no promises. If you truly don't understand what I'm trying to say, by all means, let me know. If you understand, but disagree, and can make a coherent argument, please feel free to post. If you're really good, you might even get me to change my mind; I try to be intellectually honest. If you understand, disagree, and just want to harangue me about my views with comments like, "How can you say such things about the Gedoilim?", you probably shouldn't bother... unless, of course, they're truly stupid and worthy of serious ridicule, in which case, by all means, please post them. And if you're being mean and nasty, I'll just delete your comments anyway, so don't bother.

Finally, and I really don't mean to offend, but the purpose of this blog is to express my ideas, and allow some dialogue about them, as I continually quest to hone my understanding of things, and my own thoughts about God, Judaism, and the Universe. If it interests you, and you are able to take anything away from it, I'll be thrilled. But if some of the concepts, or terms, are a bit too esoteric - and depending on whom you are, and your background, they may just be that - I'm not going to slow down to explain much... at least not here. Mi she'yavin, yavin...

So, am I a kofer? I don't think so, but based on many of my conversations with the yeshivishe velt through the years, I think some of you will conclude that I am. That's your perogative. You're welcome not to read this stuff. If you do, well... you've been warned.

-- The Half-Heretic